Keith Haring is perhaps best known for his funky cartoons of happy babies with halos and line drawings of Mickey Mouse look-alikes. At first glance his use of garish colours and popping black silhouettes gives the impression of a happy cartoon world. What you can buy on buttons and T-shirts are often his happier motifs. But look again! There is a depth to his work that can make a casual viewer quite uncomfortable.
As I walked through the extensive exhibition of Keith Haring´s Alphabet at the Albertina during my latest instawalk with Instagramers Austria, apart from the well known barking dogs and happy baby as well as erotic and sexual scenes, I perceived much fear and violence, especially in some of his later work.
His early work in New York City began with “subway drawings”, chalk line drawings on unused black advertising panels. When he became more famous he also produced colorful murals with social messages throughout New York, as well as in Paris and on the Berlin Wall.
Keith Haring did enjoy parties and club life in New York City. His fluorescent paintings express the vibrant energy he experienced in the City with fellow artists and friends, and also reflect the atmosphere in its clubs in the 1980s, when fluorescent wall decor was quite popular.
Haring deliberately gave most of his pictures no titles in order not to force with any interpretation on the viewer, but rather to allow a “stream of unconsciousness” to flow freely.
Some of Haring´s paintings appear ornamental but are evidently meant to send messages and warnings. The exhibitions´s curator likens this garish yellow painting to Hieronymus Bosch´s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – which is equally disturbing (and which you can ´see at the Akademiegalerie, by the way). It´s like something out of a nightmare: a giant monster and various other horrible creatures consisting mostly of humanoid body parts that devour, torture and digest humans.
Haring was not just an artist, he was also an activist. With his art Keith Haring tried to fight against racism, homophobia and oppression. He rejected every form of fundamentalism and fanaticism. In later years he became active in raising awareness about HIV and AIDS.
Before his death from AIDS-related complications he founded the Keith Haring Foundation, which since 1989 preserves and circulates his artwork and archives, and makes grants to children in need and those affected by HIV/AIDS in the spirit of the artist. The artist would have been 60 years old this year. Sadly, he died in 1990, only 32 years old.
The exhibition at the Albertina is on view until 24 June 2018.
Whether you like his work or not, his causes are surely worthwhile. Spread Keith Haring´s vision for social justice using #ShareLove and #Fighthate on your social media channels!
You can read more about Keith Haring at the Foundation´s website.